The Road to Dynasty
Favored to win their third straight championship, Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors face more adversity than fans realize. Kerr speaks with his former coach Phil Jackson — who led two teams to 11 NBA championships — about surviving success.
When Steve Kerr joined the Chicago Bulls as a guard in 1993, he began a relationship with Phil Jackson that’s been one of the most important in his life — coach, teacher, mentor, and, now for many years, good friend. The Bulls under Jackson would win three consecutive NBA championships before Kerr left in 1998. Jackson would go on to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, which he led to five championships in the 2000s, making him the winningest coach in the history of the league. Since Kerr was hired to coach the Golden State Warriors four years ago — he had never coached in the NBA before — his success has been nothing short of Jackson-like. The team has won three championships and, in the view of many, changed the way the game is played. Thoughtful, outspoken, attuned to social media, a creative basketball mind, someone who’s keenly aware of the pressures that society puts on modern players, Kerr would be the first to say that Jackson has been a major influence in how he thinks about the game and how he leads. On the eve of the new season, the two discuss what they’ve learned from coaching over the years.
California Sunday Phil, Steve’s in a place where you’ve been four times — the chance to win an NBA championship three seasons in a row as a coach. What advice would you give him?
Phil Jackson With the duration of the season, you have to allow your players to feel their way back into the game, because they’ve been stretched. I thought last year Steve’s team showed the wear and tear of those past years. They’ve been going at this for four years, and the injuries are starting to become more frequent, and age is starting to tell. They have to come back and really find their path, and the players know this.
CS Steve, you have pointed out on a number of occasions that success creates a different set of challenges than struggle. What strategies have worked for you and what strategies have not worked for you during the team’s run?
Steve Kerr Well, I can tell you that one that did not work for me was when I blasted the team publicly last season. I was very forgiving all season long for the reasons Phil mentioned. It’s a long year, and players were tired, and they had shown some vulnerability. We were near the end of the season. We had four or five really bad games in a row, where I felt our effort was basically nonexistent. I was really worried, because the playoffs were coming up, and I let them have it, both in the locker room and then with the press later on, right after the game in Indiana. And that didn’t work. Our players were not happy. My assistant coaches came to me, and they said, “You got to pull that one back.”
That’s something that might have been more effective 20 years ago than is possible now. So I have to recognize that. Going into this season, I think it’s only going to be that much more difficult to rein in my frustration, knowing full well that these guys have expended so much over the last four years. I’ve got to give them a lot of leeway, and I’ve got to be extremely patient, but we’re all competitive. We all want to win. So, when do you kick a little bit and try to give them a little boost and when do you back off? That’s what you have to figure out as a coach.
Jackson Bringing on a very volatile player who’s very talented and a surprising addition to your team — DeMarcus Cousins — has given you some new things to conjure up as far as coaching and taking a load off some of the other scorers.
Kerr For sure. Cousins is going be a big addition in that regard. It’ll be an intellectual challenge that our core players, I think, will really enjoy. It’ll look different. It’ll feel different, and I think they need that. I’m also very tempted to change the format of practice. You know, we’ve been pretty consistent with four lines, the fundamental stuff. We’ve had a format that’s worked for us, that our guys are very versed in, but I feel like we should explore a completely different type of practice just to keep our guys’ minds fresh. I might call off shootarounds this year.
Jackson Have you made any additions to your coaching staff, Steve?
Kerr No. We haven’t had much turnover at all the last couple of years, so that’s a concern as well. I think we could actually use a little bit of a change in that regard, but you can’t always dictate that.
CS Phil, is there a moment that taught you the most as a coach?
Jackson It was the second year of the Bulls’ first three-peat run, and we had a playoff game in Philadelphia. My coaching experience was different than the present-day one. We had a lot of militaristic kind of training. Bobby Knight was one of the heralded coaches during the ’80s and ’90s who exemplified the idea of the coach as commanding officer, as the general. One of my assistant coaches had been a gunner ensign in World War II. He called one of the players off the floor, and he said, “Coach Jackson needs a whipping boy. I know you want to serve your team best. Are you willing to stand up to that kind of pressure?” And the guy said, “Yes, sir. You know, sir, I’d like to do that.” And that’s how I used this player, who is a sensitive person. But in the playoffs against Philadelphia, he broke down.
That led to a change in my philosophy as a coach. I read Positive Coaching. It wasn’t even a book. At that point, it was a manuscript that was sent to me by Rich Kelley, and I changed my tactics with this player, and we had a relationship that changed significantly. One of the things about coaching in this day and age is that it’s much more about a positive connection with players.
Kerr I think that’s dead-on. One of the things that I learned from Phil was how important it was being funny watching game film, editing stuff in from movies. Nobody I had ever played for had ever done that, and, to me, that was such an effective way of getting a message across. When you could tie together the point you’re trying to make on the basketball floor with a humorous message coming from a movie — when the message is clear and it carries over to what you’re trying to teach — you’re not having to either kiss up to the player or criticize them. You’re just telling them something, but you’re using humor. I thought that was part of Phil’s genius, and it’s something that we try to employ all the time. It’s a lot easier to do now, too, because you’ve got modern technology, and three or four people are in the video room. Phil, you did that yourself, didn’t you?
Jackson Yep. I did.
Kerr I’ll give you an example. Last year, we came down on a two-on-one, and Draymond Green had the ball. Steph Curry runs to the 3-point line. Draymond has a dunk if he wants it, because the defender runs to Steph, but Draymond passes up a dunk and throws it to Steph, and Steph misses the 3-pointer. I’m looking at my coaches like, “What the hell are we doing? Just please take the 2-pointer.” So what are my options to tell Draymond? How are we going to do this creatively? What we decided on the next day at practice was to show a video on playing blackjack. It was about splitting 10s, and the audio says, “Never, ever split 10s. Why would you ever give up a winning hand just to try to get two better ones?”
The message from the video was so obvious. The guys loved it, because they all like to play cards. They got a good laugh out of it, and Draymond laughed. That was to me the kind of stuff I learned from Phil — that there are different ways to get the message across, that if you’re creative enough, then they’re not going to get sick of your voice and they’re not going to get sick of you saying the same things over and over again.
Jackson You know, I was thinking about Cousins and how he’s a guy that’s shown a lack of — what’s a good word to use for this? — impulse control in his career. On the Bulls we had someone similar — Dennis Rodman. Both feel like they’re picked on by referees and officials and the league and so forth. Draymond Green’s a little bit like that, too. It gets into a little bit of an attitude.
What may be needed is officially declaring that we’re going to work on mindfulness. The first season that Steve came to the Bulls organization, we got a guy named George Mumford involved in doing mindfulness training. I thought that was a really important thing — to bring a different feel, a different attitude, a way of trying to let things go on the court and move forward. What we do as coaches a lot of the time is try and get guys to refocus, and that kind of training is an aid in that.
Kerr Yeah, that was some of the best stuff that I ever experienced as a player, and the reason it worked was it was so authentic to you and your personality, Phil. It’s been something that I’ve struggled with a little bit as a coach, trying to find the right person to help the team. One year we had a guy who was really good. He was with the Navy Seals, and he came in and worked with our guys, both individually and as a team. We did some mindfulness training. I think the guys really respected him and liked him, and then he ended up taking a full-time job elsewhere. It’s tough to find the right person. You can’t just throw anybody out in front of a group of NBA players.
CS Steve, you spend your time helping people learn and grow. Where do you go to learn and grow, and where do you think you most need to learn and grow?
Kerr First, my playing career was about as strong an apprenticeship as anybody could possibly have if they wanted to get into coaching. I mean, I played for four or five Hall of Famers between Phil, Lenny Wilkens, Gregg Popovich, Lute Olson, Cotton Fitzsimmons. I share a lot with other coaches, and I’ve sought out advice from coaches in other sports. Pete Carroll’s become a friend, and whenever he’s in Oakland, we try to get together when the Seahawks play the Raiders. I think he’s somebody I have learned a lot from.
I remember Phil walked into practice one day and said, “Anybody watch the Clipper game last night?” This is when the Clippers were rock bottom, and we all sort of looked at each other. “Of course we didn’t, Phil. We got better things to do.” But now I get it. I watch all the games. I watch what other teams are doing. I pick up out-of-bounds plays and steal them from other teams. The league is like that. Everybody steals from each other.
CS The objective of coaching, of course, is winning — that’s how you guys are judged. But both of you have always seen your role as more than that — that you’re also helping young men, mostly young black men, have “a greater understanding of themselves,” to borrow a phrase from Rick Fox, a Laker who played for you, Phil. What does that obligation entail?
Jackson Sports portrays all the character that an individual has, particularly basketball. Football has helmets and pads, and you’re not seeing guys cuss at each other, whatever they’re doing inside the pileup of bodies. Baseball has no contact. Basketball’s very open. You’re in your underwear playing this game, and you can’t hide. The fans are just sitting there 15 feet, 10 feet, 6 feet off the court.
Plus, we have all the other things that go on in our society. You know, Steve has taken up the call about guns. One time we had a player on the Bulls, Scottie Pippen, who was found with a gun in his car. So the team had a talk about guns and about why. Who carries guns? Are you afraid? Are you being protective? Guns bring their own violence. So many things happen in our society because the anger’s too hard to contain for a lot of individuals, and if they have a gun, they use it.
We talked about Gandhi’s influence, of the value of nonviolent protesting, of carrying a different energy into a conflict, that when you come into a conflict with anger, you’re going to be met, more likely, with anger. We were dealing with that because that’s part of our game: to come in with anger but turn it in a different way, that you are a warrior, but you don’t have to be a warrior that’s about killing people or harming people. It’s about having control and exacting control. It’s more like tai chi than jujitsu. We have these opportunities to coach, and you can either turn away from it or deal with it.
Kerr I think the reason that you were so successful, Phil, was when you would give everybody a book, you gave that a lot of thought. There was always a theme to the choice of the book that you gave to each player. That meant a lot. I don’t think every coach feels confident enough to do something like that.
You got to remember that most of these guys are coming into the NBA at 20, and so they’re maybe a year in college, maybe a couple years. You get all this money, and, to go back to what Rick Fox said, you’re sort of trying to figure it out. You’re trying to find yourself. Once you make it in the league — once you realize, “OK, I’ve made it, and I can make a living, and I’m going to play for a while.” — then you start to think about how you can use your influence for something better. I think a good coach helps that process along for the young players.
CS Steve, you’ve been quite public about your views, using Twitter and interviews to express your thoughts about President Trump and gun control, and Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have as well. That’s radically different from 20, 30, 40 years ago, when most athletes and coaches were discouraged, if not admonished, for expressing their views on social issues. Phil is a prime example, having been ostracized when he spoke out when he was playing for the Knicks.What can you achieve by speaking out? What’s changed?
Kerr First of all, I think the times have changed, and the times call for it. I was born in ’65, so I remember reading about Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor and some of the great black athletes at the time joining forces in the civil rights cause — John Carlos and Tommie Smith. I think after Vietnam ended we sort of entered a long period of relative peace, and it just didn’t seem like there was this alarm bell going off like there is now. I think right now it just feels like people need to be speaking, because there’s a lot going wrong and a lot that needs to be corrected and worked on.
I think where the NBA’s gone right is the leadership works closely with the players, whereas the NFL has conjured up ways to create this false patriotism and pandered to their fan base, and they can’t really figure out what to do, whether the players should stand or kneel. Whereas the NBA got out in front of all of it just by being partners with the players and being pretty upfront and outspoken themselves, going back to the Donald Sterling stuff a few years ago and really beyond.
CS Phil, you’re rarely on Twitter.
Jackson What Twitter is right now is people trying to shout you down unless you’re on their side. It’s a very different environment. Liberal doesn’t mean that you listen and discuss. Liberal means that you shout people down, and that’s a different kind of a connotation than I used to see in our society.
CS You each have coached phenomenal players. Could you pick one or two and talk about what makes or made them great?
Kerr Well, Steph is the obvious one, so I’ll talk about him a little bit. He’s one of the most unique players who’s ever played. Very few guys his size have ever had this kind of impact on the game. He’s pretty much exactly my size, 6 foot 3, 190 pounds. It’s a different game today. You can’t put your hands on him. Twenty years ago, you would have been able to put two hands on him to try and slow him down a little bit and be physical with him. You can’t do that now. Still, I’ve never seen anybody with this kind of shooting range and the ability to shoot off the dribble or catch and shoot. Most guys are significantly better one way rather than the other, but he can shoot standing still, off the dribble, left, right, forward, backward — it doesn’t matter. He’s got just incredible touch.
I think what makes him unique is his personality. Sometimes I’ll refer to him as the short Tim Duncan, because he’s got that same impact that Tim had on the Spurs in terms of this genuine humility in his daily life and concern and thoughts for other people and for the world and for his community, and yet, he has this great arrogance on the floor, where he knows he’s the best player out there. Pretty wicked package. Very few players I’ve ever been around have possessed that combination.
Jackson Steph comes from a basketball family. His father was a massive influence on his basketball game, and his mother’s been a big influence on his spiritual life. Does that sound right to you, Steve?
Kerr No doubt. His mom was a hell of an athlete, too. She was a volleyball player at Virginia Tech.
Jackson I had a player that’s like that in Kobe Bryant. He was a guy who was competitive, a shark who was seeking blood in the water. His arrogance coming into the game was almost rude. I remember watching him in his first All-Star Game, and I thought he was disrespectful in how he approached the game. But he was always challenging, always trying to go after the biggest fish in the water.
You know there’s that joyful hero excellence that goes along with being a star, and then there’s also that humbling experience that happens to many of our players when they are taken off their pedestal. We’ve seen it happen to a lot of players. Michael Jordan when his gambling became the issue that everybody focused on in a certain period of his career. For Kobe, it was an act that changed his life. Soon after, the Lakers had a back-to-back with Portland. We had played them at home and then flew to Portland. It’s not a nice trip. It’s raining. We must have gotten in at 3 o’clock in the morning. I always had a meeting with the coaches in the morning. And we’re meeting at 9 o’clock in the basement of the hotel, and we’re sitting there, and Kobe comes in the door. It’s Ash Wednesday, and he’s got ashes. He’s gotten up and gone to church.
From then on in his career, it was all growth to a point where we saw a guy that did some things that were miraculous. It was dedication. I often went to work at 8:30, and if we had a late night, that’s pretty early. I’d pull into my parking spot, and Kobe’d be there taking a nap in his car. He’d been there since 6:30 working out. He had a remarkable drive towards getting better. I’ve never seen another player attack his personal habits the way he did.
CS Steve, if you had a question for Phil, what would it be? And Phil, what would you like to ask Steve?
Kerr Phil, where’d you travel last year? How long were you in Montana?
Jackson Well, I was a resident of Montana for much of the year, but I had a film festival that I was invited to in Rome in October, and I went over there. I called my trip Razor’s Edge. It was a spiritual journey. I wanted to make the most of it, so I took in a lot of Roman Catholic history. I visited the Vatican and lots of churches. Later, I went to Buddhist Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. I ended up being gone for a little more than five weeks on that trip. I came back to Montana in mid-March and have been here since. It was an interesting year, a very interesting year. I did things like bake bread. I don’t watch much basketball, but I did watch your team, and I did watch the end of the playoffs, the last two segments of the East and West finals.
Kerr Yeah, you called with some advice on Chris Paul that was helpful.
Jackson I have two questions for Steve. How was your summer? How are things physically?
Kerr Yeah, yeah. I am doing better, which is great. I’m not 100 percent still. It’s been a long haul, but I am doing better, and I’ve found some things that have been helpful, so that’s encouraging. As you well remember, the summers aren’t long enough after you go to the Finals.